In the series premiere of “The Wire,” which aired the summer after the 9/11 attacks, Baltimore Police Det. Jimmy McNulty asks his FBI friend Terrance “Fitz” Fitzhugh to help wiretap drug dealers in the city. “Wrong war, brother,” Fitz says. The FBI was shutting down drug investigations to throw all its resources at counterterrorism, and later in the series, Fitz can only snag a crucial wiretap of Russel “Stringer” Bell by changing his first name to “Ahmed” on the warrant.
When I think about 9/11 — after I recall the shock, the grief and the rage of that awful day — I think about wealthy, booming Washington, D.C., and its poor, struggling cousin 40 miles north, the city of Baltimore. I think about how America’s response to the attacks amounted, in so many ways, to picking winners and losers here at home. I think about the Great Redistribution.
In the 1990s, Baltimore and D.C. were two peas in a pod — about the same size, with rising crime rates and shrinking populations. It made little difference that D.C. was the seat of the federal government.
After 9/11, though, their paths diverged. While Baltimore kept shrinking and kept struggling, D.C. grew rich, and its population exploded.
We can’t trace this divergence to a single cause. But America’s response to the 9/11 attacks surely played a major role. During the Cold War, massive defense spending could be distributed throughout the United States because its grand strategy required a host of defensive installations, like intercontinental ballistic missiles across the Great Plains and pricey armaments manufactured at home.
Counterterrorism is different: It demands vast resources for intelligence gathering, to sort friend from foe, and nation-building, to win hearts and minds abroad. These types of activities are more efficiently managed from the D.C. metro area, where contractors can do business and lobby the government in the same place. And the war on terror was fought as much by contractors as it was by the military. In 2019, contractors outnumbered U.S. troops in Afghanistan two to one. Payments to private companies that year consumed more than half the defense budget.
Every government action redistributes wealth and power. But the trade-offs are less visible when the federal government isn’t regulating, but is pouring money into, a particular industry through contracts for goods and services. The regions where the industry operates prosper, and others fall behind. We notice it less because there are no crackdowns, no howling lobbyists, no increased prices for goods. In places like Baltimore, the money just never shows up. It’s flowing, no doubt, but it’s flowing elsewhere.
And we’re talking about an almost unimaginable amount of money, no matter how you calculate it. A Brown University study estimated the war on terror will cost $8 trillion. Where did all that money go? Americans are aware that defense spending is riddled with waste, that oversight of military contracts is too weak. The days of $500 hammers never really ended. Defense contractors still charge massive overhead for parts. Weapons systems come in billions over budget or don’t work. Many services the military pays for are provided poorly or never at all. And huge sums simply up and disappear.
Although we don’t always know the return on investment the government receives from defense contracts, we do know who benefits. The companies themselves and their subcontractors profit, of course. And prosperity comes to the communities where the companies’ owners and employees buy houses and spend money. Places like the District itself, and Bethesda and Falls Church. Baltimore, it seems, is just a bit too far away.
When I think about that $8 trillion in my office in midtown Baltimore, it’s hard not to think of what even a sliver of that sum could pay for here. Every single school repaired or rebuilt with air conditioning and filtering and new playgrounds. Block after block of historic row houses restored instead of demolished. Something like the original 71-mile, six-line 1968 Baltimore Metro Plan — a transit system on par with D.C.’s — actually constructed. Enough police detectives hired to solve murders. Crime going down, people moving in, kids growing up in safety.
The citizens of Baltimore know this is not a fantasy. They need only look south to see what the Great Redistribution has done for its cousin.
We don’t have to accept this growing inequity among cities. We can invest in the places the Great Redistribution left behind and help them catch up. The war in Afghanistan is over. It’s time for a peace dividend in Baltimore.
Robert Knowles (email@example.com) is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he teaches national security law.